Thanksgiving is the time of year when we gather with our loved ones and consider the things that matter to us most. Even in times of political turmoil and uncertainty, this is the perfect time to think about the things we’re thankful for. So, here are seven underappreciated movies that we believe deserve more love and attention. No judgments here, only love.
In 2008, Iron Man and The Dark Knight redefined superhero movies forever. In 2009, Push was forgotten almost overnight. It’s a shame since Push is a great example of how to keep a superpower story simple and entertaining.
In Push‘s world, there are people with classes of superpowers. Nick Grant (a pre-Captain America Chris Evans) is a “Mover”; he moves objects with his mind. He meets a teenage runaway, Cassie (Dakota Fanning), who is a “Watcher.” Cassie’s powers give her the vision to can see a dark future ahead. Together, Nick and Cassie have to fight their way through deadly superpowered mobsters in the neon grime of Hong Kong.
Push has a good plot twist and some very creative fight scenes; the Mover gunfight with guns floating in midair is a particular highlight. After a decade of bloated superhero blockbusters, Push is just a thriller, which is a nice change of pace.
You either love The Lonely Island comedy trio or you don’t. The team of Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg, and Jorma Taccone were early viral video stars before taking their talents to Saturday Night Live. When they finally got their own film, it was the 1970s-styled parody/tribute to stuntmen called Hot Rod. It was a triumph for the team comedically, even if it flopped at the box office and quickly fell into DVD obscurity.
Akiva and Andy did great work in the lead roles, supported by comedic all-stars like Bill Hader, Danny McBride, and Isla Fisher in this tale of ridiculous suburban hijinks. Ian McShane is particularly good as Sandberg’s intimidating stepdad, no less scary than McShane’s iconic Al Swearengen from Deadwood.
The plot is the same slobs versus snobs arc you’ll see in most comedies, but a playful self-awareness and economic editing style save it from going full-cliché. Whenever I needed a laugh at my old video store job, I knew I could easily get one by turning on Hot Rod.
There was a weird subgenre of films that came out in the mid-2000s that had the style of music videos. Movies like Domino, Crank, and Smokin’ Aces were clearly trying to cash in on the success of avant-garde filmmakers like Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle. The problem was that these movies had zero substance and are essentially intellectual junk food.
The reason I still love Smokin’ Aces is because it knows it’s junk food. This is a no-holds-barred battle between assassins. The characters are all one-note and wacky. But, it works in the movie’s favor. Smokin’ Aces doesn’t bog itself down with hammy romances like Domino. It isn’t as weird as Southland Tales. It’s a neat little action movie with some clever writing and pitch-black humor.
Smokin’ Aces is stupid but it’s fun. It’s a bullet ballet with rock music and everyone in the behind-the-scenes featurettes seems like they’re genuinely having a blast. Sometimes you need the mental equivalent of nachos, and Smokin’ Aces fits the bill.
John Carter’s failure still makes me sad. Audiences in 2012 had no memory of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ancient books series which the film was based on. The marketing was a complete disaster. Disney failed to explain to people what this movie was supposed to be. Critic trashed the film, happy to torch a certain flop.
John Carter is not a bad movie. It isn’t even a mediocre one. This is a very good, if not even close to great film. And I say that without an ounce of irony. I defend Gods of Egypt in my writer blurb at the end of every article. But that movie is campy schlock, nothing more. John Carter is the real deal, one of the very best SciFi fantasy movies – emphasis on the fantasy. It’s a wacky film full of gravity-defying action and green men. But John Carter plays itself straight.
The acting is admittedly hit or miss. Otherwise, this is a beautifully colorful piece of fantasy. John Carter had an interesting world, great action scenes, and wonderfully realized aliens. Andrew Stanton is as good with directing CG action as he is with directing children’s movies. Unfortunately, his only live action film is doomed to obscurity.
Most people seem to like it when Batman is being dark and serious. They usually forget that the character came to prominence thanks to a campy TV show in the 1960s. After Tim Burton had gone as dark as he could with his two feature films, Batman needed a shot of zaniness. And Batman Forever delivered it in spades.
The movie is a hyperkinetic explosion of neon colors and nonsensical designs. But it makes the whole experience feel so damn comic bookish. The villains play into this style hard, and though many people may not be able to tolerate the frantic attitudes of The Riddler and Two-Face, they feel refreshing in a genre so intent on being taken seriously.
It’s unfortunate that this film was followed by a shameless toy commercial because it’s not the travesty many fans make it out to be. There is heart, humor, and loads of fun to be had in Batman Forever if you give it a chance.
The term “Mad Max on a Jetski” is both a scathing indictment of Waterworld and proof of its glory. It’s one of those movies where the general public bought into the behind-the-scenes turmoil and budget overruns. Rather than judging the movie on its merits, the whole “Fishtar” joke was regurgitated.
As it stands, Waterworld is a solid and fun pulpy ride. Kevin Costner is a blast as a pee-drinking, civilian-ignoring sea mutant. Dennis Hopper goes so over the top you’d expect Sly Stallone to turn his hat around in approval. Director Kevin Reynolds, one of the rather unsung terrific filmmakers out there, delivers tons of spectacle.
There’s a lot to like here, and the funny thing is that the film ultimately wasn’t as big a failure as everyone hoped. Time has been kind to this rather timeless movie, and who knows, it may become prescient before too long.
Jurassic Park 3
Jurassic Park‘s first sequel, The Lost World, is a mess. It’s a fun mess sometimes, but it’s not a worthy sequel to one of the best blockbusters of the ’90s. Jurassic Park III, however, is an under-appreciated little movie that embraces the best of its predecessors. It also knows it’s a lesser film than the previous two.
Jurassic Park III comes from a bygone era where it was generally accepted that sequels would produce diminishing returns at the box office. That’s why so many sequels, particularly to genre films, went straight to video.
The third film in the franchise aims lower than the first two films. It achieves less, but it also fails less than The Lost World. Jurassic Park III is a thriller with a small cast and a simple objective. Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) is no Spielberg, but his direction is more than capable.
Though fans have largely discarded the film, Jurassic Park III is notable for its incredible effects work. Stan Winston‘s animatronics are better than ever, and Johnston wasn’t shy about mixing and intercutting practical and digital effects. And though it pains me to say it, the family drama in this film holds up better than Jurassic World‘s attempt at emotional stakes.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
The original Gremlins was pretty much universally loved when it hit screens in 1984. The film deftly blended horror and black comedy to become a box office smash, grossing more than $150m at the American box office in the process. The sequel – with a budget three times larger than the original – grossed just $41m. According to director Joe Dante, the studio execs who greenlit the project were horrified when they saw the finished flick, while critics were confused, with many hating it.
The film’s failure was doubtless due to a dramatic change in approach, Dante and screenwriter Charles Haas pulling back on the horror and replacing it with satire and slapstick comedy straight out of a Loony Tunes cartoon.
But that’s the genius of Gremlins II. Joe Dante was reluctant to make a sequel, and so decided to mess with the formula, making fun of the original, Ted Turner, the rules, Donald Trump, and even Phoebe Cates’ memorable speech from the first film. It was a bold, brave, bizarre approach that confounded audiences at the time and killed the franchise dead. But this also means the film has managed to stand the test of time, with Gremlins II consistently surprising and funny, and quite unlike any sequel ever made.
Reign of Fire
Reign of Fire is another victim of hype. The marketing sold a film with dozens of dragons battling dozens of helicopters and seemingly promised a film of wall-to-wall action. This movie is not that.
It’s easy to understand why it may have discouraged some. Especially ones who don’t realize that in 2002 there simply wasn’t the budget or technology to deliver something like that consistently. A tentpole movie without major stars, a big studio, or an A-List director. Granted, Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, and Gerard Butler are giant stars now but hindsight is what it is.
Reign of Fire is a terrific movie, regardless of what the poster sold. Rob Bowman is a director who should have had a bigger career. Here he shows great ability to get good performances, mine humor, and create amazing visuals on what is a relatively inexpensive tentpole movie. The dragons are terrific. McConaughey is delightful in the role of an obsessed maniac of a soldier. Bale holds the center while Butler is charming, especially during their Star Wars re-enactment for the children of their village. And the score is tremendous.
This maligned adaptation of Michael Crichton‘s novel didn’t deserve the critical thrashing it received. It is a little long and a bit low on energy. The dialogue isn’t great, either. But Sphere really goes for its pulpy-heady blend of sci-fi horror. Sphere tries to be smarter than it really is, but that tends to come with the territory with Crichton. The guy wrote blockbuster pulp with a heaping of technobabble. Sphere fits the mold, for better and for worse.
The movie may not be good as a whole, but it has a lot going for it. The production design is great, the direction only slightly less so. Elliott Goldenthal‘s score is superb. There’s no lack of talent in Sphere’s underwater habitat. Somewhere in Crichton’s source material is a good movie or HBO limited series. But even if Sphere gets a better adaptation, Barry Levinson’s 1998 movie is more than watchable — it’s downright enjoyable.
The 2012 film adaptation of Judge Dredd was beloved for being a much more serious take on the material than the 1995 version which was lambasted by critics, fans, and regular moviegoers. It’s easy to see why: gaudy production, goofball tone, and a threadbare plot. But that’s kind of why I love it.
We don’t get comic book movies like Judge Dredd anymore. The movie is knowingly ridiculous and leans into it without hesitation. The production design is akin to a Day-Glo Blade Runner but that only enhances the cartoony feel of the piece. And Sylvester Stallone is playing the kind of square-jawed tough guy that feels lovingly antiquated.
Judge Dredd (2012) may not be a good film but it’s an insanely enjoyable one. Even Rob Schneider gets what the movie is going for and manages more than his fair share of laughs. That miracle alone warrants Judge Dredd getting some reappraisal.
Escape to Victory
Escape to Victory – or simply Victory as it was titled in the U.S. – really shouldn’t work. Set in a German POW camp during WWII, the film revolves around the staging of a football match between the prisoners and their Nazi captors. The film was directed by Hollywood legend John Huston, and stars Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow, former England captain Bobby Moore, Brazilian legend Pele, and a group of players from Ipswich Town FC.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really work. Clocking in at 117 minutes the film feels like double that. Stallone’s French love interest and her cute son bring absolutely nothing to proceedings, and an attempt to briefly address the Holocaust is horribly misjudged.
However, the film’s final 30-minutes are a delight. The big match is high on drama as the evil Germans and a corrupt referee try to cheat their way to victory. But the Allies won’t be beaten. Stallone’s motor-mouth goalie pulls off miraculous save after miraculous save, Ossie Ardiles produces a flick that really has to be seen to be believed, and Pele pulls off a bicycle kick that kids all over the world have been trying to emulate ever since.
At half-time, the Resistance offers the good guys a means of escape. But they turn it down in favor of finishing the match. It’s a ridiculous moment, at the end of a ridiculous film, but there’s something quite wonderful about that scene, sandwiched in the middle of a match that makes me smile and cheer and even shed the odd tear. For that reason, I’ll always love Escape to Victory.
[A version of this article was originally published on Nov 24, 2016]